Thursday, June 30, 2011

iPad Round-Up 3 - PAUL

What is it about British comedians that they go to America, garner a little success, and then get the urge to mock the key difference between America and Britain - Christian fundamentalism. Don't get me wrong - people who believe in Intelligent Design give me the heebie-jeebies - but there does seem something rather odd, and pathological even - in these movies that delight in undermining religious belief. I speak here of Ricky Gervais' THE INVENTION OF LYING and, now, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg's new film, PAUL.

The plot is simple.  Frost and Pegg play two best friends and sci-fi geeks who attend a convention in the US. They pick up an alien who needs to get home, voiced by Seth Rogen, and so set up a comedy road-movie that could've been a clever satire on genre films, just in the same way that SHAUN OF THE DEAD brilliantly spiked zombie movies, or HOT FUZZ spiked cop films.  But  no, Frost and Pegg add a fourth character to their movie - a religious fundamentalist (Kristen Wiig) whose entire world-view is over-turned by her realisation that there is life on other planets.  

Of course this could've been as funny as anything in HOT FUZZ or SHAUN, but somehow - maybe the sensitivity of this material in the US, or maybe the real Hollywood money behind the picture - dulled their wit. (Or maybe it's that Frost and Pegg are without their usual collaborator - Edgar Wright?)  There are still flashes of the kind of ribald, laugh-out-loud comedy that we got in the earlier films, but overall this seems like a much tamer, and less memorable affair.  That unmistakeable damp squib sensation that settles in at about the hour mark isn't helped by a rather flat cameo by Jason Bateman as the spooky Fed, and can't be saved by a cameo from Sigourney Weaver. I also feel that Seth Rogen is straying into the territory occupied by Jack Black - that of always playing himself - even when voicing a CGI alien. 

PAUL was released earlier this year in the UK, Ireland, Belgium, France, Canada, the US, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Ukraine, Australia, Croatia, Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia, Hungary, Malaysia, Singapore, Iceland, Italy, the Philippines, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Lithuania. It is currently on release in Sweden, Thailand and Turkey. It opens in Spain on July 22nd.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


When I was a pre-teen and we all obsessively watched the lo-rent sci-fi TV comedy, RED DWARF, the phrase "almost Swiftian in its rapier-like subtlety" became a standard term of praise, long before we'd read Swift in class and fully appreciated the radical, deliriously scabrous nature of his political satire. That was back in the day when schools taught children useful shit like calculus and Latin.  Nowadays, family audiences have no use for political satire - although one might have thought that in the post global financial crisis world - with governments insolvent and political systems ossified by special interests - now would be EXACTLY the time for it.  And so, dear reader, we get the movies we deserve. Towit, Rob Letterman's utterly banal children's movie, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS - a film based on Swift only insofar as it incorporates a man who wakes up in a land filled with tiny little people called Liliputians.

So, Swift aside, how does it fare as simple family entertainment? Shockingly poor.  A mindlessly simple plot, piss-poor CGI effects, hammy acting from the largely British cast of character actors, and Jack Black playing the character he always plays - the childish, rock-obsessed but ultimately love-able frump. Director Rob Letterman and writer Joe Stillman display none of the wit or imagination seen in MONSTERS VS. ALIENS or SHREK. Must try harder.

GULLIVER'S TRAVELS was released over the 2010/2011 holiday season. It is now available to rent and own.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

iPad Round-Up 1 - RABBIT HOLE

RABBIT HOLE is an earnest but workman-like film about grief, adapted for the screen by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (INKHEART) and directed in an uncharacteristically conservative manner by John Cameron Mitchell of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH and SHORTBUS fame.  The overall effect is of a sensitive and well-acted TV movie - worth watching but curiously unmemorable.

The movie stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as an affluent, suburban couple grieving for their son who was killed in a car accident eight months before the movie began.  Grief tests their marriage.  The wife reacts by clearing out her son's possessions, opting out of group, wanting to move house and, perhaps, most disturbingly, by striking up a friendship with her the preternaturally sensitive teen who was driving the car in the accident.  The husband seems to be much more open about his grief and rage and feels frustrated by his wife's secretive and volatile behaviour - almost tempted into an affair but with the fortitude to bend toward his wife one last time.  

Kidman got the plaudits for her performance - including an Oscar nomination - and she is just fine in her role - particularly good in a scene where she secretly returns to the City hoping to find the life she left behind only to realise it has left HER behind. But her complete shut-down restraint -  very well calibrated - makes for a sterile hole at the centre of the film, and I'm not sure the film survives it. This isn't helped by the rather flat, uninteresting work behind the screen from John Cameron Mitchell and his regular DP Frank DeMarco using a RedOne.  What saves the film is Aaron Eckhart in what is probably his best performance to date. He manages to combine great sensitivity and humour  - and in the key cathartic scene he never trips into hysterical melodrama but keeps it authentic.  It's a less showy performance as a result, and perhaps went overlooked for that reason, but it's completely emotionally devastating. 

RABBIT HOLE played Toronto 2010 and was released last year in Canada and the USA. It was released earlier this year in Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Ireland, the UK, Greece, Italy, Australia, Singapore, Finland, Serbia, Croatia, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Turkey, Poland, Brazil, Indonesia and Argentina. It is available to rent and own.  Nicole Kidman was nominated for Best Actress at the 2011 Oscars but lost to Natalie Portman for BLACK SWAN.

Friday, June 24, 2011

BRIDESMAIDS - chicks aside, pretty conservative

BRIDESMAIDS is getting massively hyped because, contra-vention, it's a bromance starring chicks and, shock, horror, chicks sometimes talk about sex! The reality is that, once you get over the shock of the all-female cast, BRIDESMAIDS is actually a deeply, boringly, conventional movie with a predictable plot, pedestrian direction, and over-written jokes. (Not to mention a random Irish cop - they try to make a joke about it - but seriously, why?) It all just makes me deeply depressed about how reactionary Hollywood is that such a simplistic gender-switcheroo can have everyone salivating.

Anyways, on to the plot, such as it is. Kristen Wiig plays Annie, a thirty something woman whose life is falling apart. Her business failed, she is divorced, her fuck-buddy treats her like shit, her house mates are kicking her out, and her boss is about to fire her. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) becomes engaged and, despite picking Annie to be her Maid of Honour, seems to be gravitating toward her new glamorous friend Helen (Rose Byrne), Annie has a mini-breakdown. The pressures of the wedding combined with Annie's low self-esteem, lead to her pissing off everyone who cares for her, not least Lillian and Officer Rhodes - a sweet police-officer whose attentions she scorns. Still, this being Hollywood schmaltz, you just know that all this pain is leading toward a moment of self-revelation, a last minute reconciliation with Lilian, and a Happy Ever After with Rhodes.

I didn't have a totally bad time watching this flick. It was funny enough to get me through the two-hour run-time, although I didn't as many did, laugh at Kristen Wiig's physical comedy and the gross-out humour of the entire cast. Rather, I was kept in play by Jon Hamm's hilariously oleaginous turn as the fuck-buddy; by Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson as Annie's fat flat-mates; and by the normally very pretty Melissa McCarthy ugly-ing up as the butch Megan. I also liked how Rose Byrne managed to transform Helen from an out-and-out baddy into a really sympathetic character, whose insecurity was far more pitiable than Annie's. After all, Annie gets Rhodes while Helen stays where she is. Take a look at Rose Byrne's subtle double-take as she sees Annie look at Rhodes for what she thinks is the last time. Now that's good acting.

BRIDESMAIDS is on release in the USA, Canada, Romania, Slovenia, Iceland, Australia, Hungary, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Russia, Norway and the UK. It opens on July 7th in Greece, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Singapore and Estonia. It opens on July 22nd in Germany, Finland, Lithuania and Sweden. It opens on July 29th in Poland. It opens on August 4th in Denmark; on August 10th in France; on August 10th in France; on August 19th in Italy; on August 25th in Thailand; on August 28th in Spain and on September 9th in Brazil.

Monday, June 20, 2011

GREEN LANTERN - the fifth rule of cinema: all green superheroes suck big honky ass

The Green Lantern strikes me as a remarkably anachronistic, even parochial, name for a superhero, considering that it's meant to have been invented by a bunch of super-intelligent Nietzchean aliens, who police the world with their Green Lantern corps officers powered by the energy of Will. I mean, can we take seriously any super-hero who has a magic ring (my precious!) powered by an old-school lantern - whose special power is basically manifesting his imagination as kids toys and power-tools? A superhero so crappy that his friends see right through his mask to his real identity? A superhero whose evil nemesis is basically a mean-looking Cloud, and whose human enemy basically looks like a weedy version of The Elephant Man? Colour me unimpressed.

And what can we say about the translation from comic book to screen? Well, sadly not much. Ryan Reynolds is certainly buff, but the screenplay doesn't take advantage of his talent for comedy, or of his genuine acting chops, as last seen in BURIED. Blake Lively, so impressive in THE TOWN, is limpid as his love interest, Carole Ferris, and about as believable as a test pilot as Jessica Biel in STEALTH. Tim Robbins is a caricature, Angela Bassett is under-used, Mark Strong, as Sinestro, looks like some camp Flash Gordon throwback, and as for Peter Sarsgaard as The Elephant Man, full marks for effort, but he chews up the scenery like he's in JURASSIC PARK.

GREEN LANTERN fails on every level. The plot is simplistic and predictable; the acting wooden; the special effects goofy (despite alleged millions spent on the CGI green suit); the action set-pieces unengaging. I didn't give a crap about any of it. And the tragedy is that we KNOW all these actors can act, and we KNOW, having watched X-MEN:FIRST CLASS, that origins movies that grapple with big ethical questions about the use and abuse of superpowers can be genuinely profound. I blame Martin Campbell, sometime BOND director. He looks like he was overwhelmed by his first big CGI action block-buster, and never really had the balls to bring some subtlety to the script. And the depiction of both the aliens and their perfect planet also looks like a lo-rent throwback - production design so goofy and unimpressive that kids were laughing at the alien Guardians in the screening I attended.

GREEN LANTERN is on release in the UK, US, New Zealand, Belarus, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Thailand, Canada, India, Ireland, Poland and Qatar. It opens on June 23rd in Armenia, on June 30th in Argentina, on July 17th in Azerbaijan, on July 22nd in Japan and on July 29th in Belgium. Germany, Estonia, Spain and Sweden. It opens on August 5th in Australia, the Netherlands, Finland and Norway. It opens on August 10th in France, on August 11th in Hungary, on August 19th in Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay and Portugal. It opens on August 26th in Turkey and on August 31st in Italy.

Friday, June 17, 2011

BAD TEACHER - by far not subversive enough

Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, the screen-writers who brought us the piss-poor alleged comedy, YEAR ONE, markedly improve with their new comedy, BAD TEACHER, but still have a long way to go. Cameron Diaz is deliciously scabrous as the cynical gold-digging teacher, Elizabeth Halsey. She spends most of the movie scamming her way to the cash-prize for highest student test score results - money she needs to fund a boob job, that will help her snag a rich football player, or at a pinch her flaky but rich co-worker Scott, played by Justin Timberlake. Problem is that the goody-goody co-worker is falling for the irritatingly up-beat, not to mention suspicious, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). And poor Jason Segel has to look on as warm-hearted gym teacher, Russell, killing time for the third act redemption scene.

The resulting film is an entirely predictable, and pretty banal rom-com. Its virtue is that it's short (under 90 minutes sans credits), and while never as subversive as its name-sake BAD SANTA, it has enough comedy-cameos to propel it forward. Lucy Punch is turning into a regular scene-stealer with her pitch-perfect performance as Miss Squirrel, and I also really like The Office's Phyllis Smith as Elizabeth's dopey friend and fellow-teacher Lynn. Do I need to see this film again, ever? Nope. Did it have me laughing out loud? Nope. But it was a perfectly fun way to spend an hour and a half, and it reminded me just how good Cameron Diaz is at comedy.

BAD TEACHER is on release in the UK and Ireland. It goes on release on June 23rd in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the US and Sweden. It opens on July 7th in Argentina, on July 27th in France, and on July 28th in the Czech Republic. It opens on August 6th in Japan, on August 12th in Lithuania, on August 18th in Greece and Hungary and on August 25th in Singapore. It opens on September 1st in Hong Kong, on September 2nd in Italy, on September 23rd in Colombia and on October 20th in Malaysia.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Overlooked DVD of the month - THE SUNSET LIMITED - Fides et Ratio

THE SUNSET LIMITED is a philosophical drama based upon the stage-play by Cormac McCarthy (THE ROAD, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). As both stage-play and film, it is rather an odd fish - dispensing with the conventional requirements of plot and character development for a straightforward dialogue between two characters, "Black" and "White". Tommy Lee Jones (who also directs) plays "White", a dessicated college professor and atheist who wants desperately to commit suicide. Samuel L Jackson plays "Black", an intelligent but poorly educated former convict and Christian convert, who stopped "White" killing himself before the movie begins. The movie is, then, simply a debate between these two men, the atheist and the believer. Both are articulate, passionate and sympathetic and the stakes are the very highest. Thankfully, we are spared any pat answers. 

Why is the film worth watching? Why wouldn't you just read the stage-play? Given the suitably restrained direction, photography and score, the real answer is for the brilliant central performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Jones has, I think, the easier task, as the clever man, convinced he is right, and essentially unchanged by his experience. Jackson, on the other hand, has to portray a man whose faith is challenged by a brilliant defence of nihilism - by a superficial failure - and yet emerge triumphant. 

THE SUNSET LIMITED was released in the US in February 2011 and in Spain in April. It is available to rent and own.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Overlooked DVD of the month - CHICO & RITA

CHICO & RITA is an absolutely wonderful movie - beautifully animated; honest in its depiction of sex; centred on a timeless story of love; and wrapped around Bebo Valdez' jazz score that takes in some of the greats of the post-war jazz scene - Thelonius Monk, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It's a crying shame that the flick hasn't had the crossover success of a film like BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (a movie it elegantly references in its final act, thanks to a cameo by real-life chanteuse Estrella Morente) - but hopefully the constraints of a limited release (narrow-minded distributors unsure about an R-rated animated flick?) will be broken by DVD popularity.

Chico is a gifted piano player, looking back from a run-down 1980s Havana to his "glory years" in the 50s and 60s. He meets the beautiful singer Rita and falls in love - or erotic/musical fixation - at first sight. The two lovers are destined to be together and not together - kept apart by pride; fiery tempers; betrayal; and an entertainment business happy to give a contract to a pretty singer but not her piano player. Their journey starts in Havana, but soon Rita achieves success in New York before making a Hollywood movie and ending up in Vegas. Chico crosses paths were her, often acting as her voice of conscience - reminding her of what she is giving up - how inauthentic she is having to be - to achieve success in America.

The three directors - Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba - deserve big props for daring to produce an adult-themed animated movie; for the ambition of their scope - across continents, musical styles and forty years; not to mention delicate references to post-war racial politics. One might argue that the genius of Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and Fernando Trueba's script is that the movie Shows rather than Tells us about the changing political climate - and wears its profundity very lightly.  That said, when the political themes culminate in a moving, half-drunken, outburst by Rita - the movie really does pick up notch - and I defy anyone not to glow with good-will during the final scenes.

CHICO & RITA played Telluride and Toronto 2010 and was released in the UK in 2010. It was released earlier this year in Spain and Greece. It will be released in Poland on July 1st and in France on July 6th. It is available to rent and own in the UK.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS - Gentlemen, you can't fight in here: this is the war room!

I have always been rather conflicted about the X-MEN movies. On the one hand, I found the comic book tale of mutants, whose mutations had the appearance of superhero powers, rather confused and illogical. In a cosmic tale of "scissors-paper-stone" how was I to know whether a particular mutant's ability to whip up a storm could be trumped by another mutant's ability to throw fireballs? It all seemed too easy for the writers to whip up a deus ex machina. On the other hand, I absolutely loved the profundity of the intellectual debate at the heart of THE X-MEN. The comic books served as a plea for the acceptance of "freaks" - and for mutants one can read those who are sexually or racially oppressed in real life. The real battle was not between humans and mutants but between Professor X and Magneto. Professor X believes mutants can "be the better people", helping humanity, even though humanity is not always supportive of mutants. By contrast, Magneto believes that humanity will inevitably hunt what it fears and fear what is different. Mutants should therefore go on the offensive. This is the debate between Dr King and Malcolm X - the language of acceptance and self-hatred - the conflict between appeasement and aggression.

The great news is that X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, by taking us back to the origin story of Professor X aka Charles Xavier and Magneto aka Erik Lensherr, really delves into these issues. For the first time in the franchise, I really felt as though I had equal sympathy for both sides (rather than disdain for Magneto), and felt the emotional conflict that ultimately ripped these two friends apart and led Xavier's adopted sister Raven/Mystique to leave him for Erik. I can't say enough about James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender's nuanced and emotionally affecting performances as Xavier and Erik respectively. I truly believed in their friendship between opposites - the little boy who grew up amidst great wealth and led a sheltered life at Oxford befriending the angry, tortured soul, brutalised by the Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw. And Jennifer Lawrence, given far less to do than in her Oscar nominated role in WINTER'S BONE, brings real depth to her performance as Raven - the girl who cannot hide her mutation in plain sight and has self-esteem issues that any teenager can relate to. Because you care about these people, your perception of the stakes shift. Every good action movie needs you to feel the stakes to make you care. But the stakes here aren't stopping Sebastian Shaw from inciting the USA and Soviet Union to turn the Cuban Missile Crisis into Nuclear War. (Although these serve as an amazing setting for the final action set-pieces and made me wish Matthew Vaughn could direct a James Bond movie starring Michael Fassbender). No, the real stakes are whether the disagreement between Magneto and Xavier will destroy their friendship and tear apart the mutant family.

All of which makes the movie sound rather ponderous, but that really isn't the case. It is intelligent, yes, and takes its material seriously. But it also has a sense of wit and, even cheekiness! What I really love about Matthew Vaughn's direction is that he takes the 1960s Cold War setting and really mines it well, with production design that has an air of those early Sean Connery Bond films and costumes for January Jones' that are practically Austin Powers-esque. I mean, we have January Jones (Emma Frost) in fem-bot spangly bikinis; an urbane Bond-like action hero in the form of Fassbender's Erik; and Kevin Bacon is pure Blofeld, with his double-breasted suits, yachts and obsession with atomic energy. Other comedic touches included a training montage of the type spoofed in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, that stays just the right-side of camp. A set-piece with the mutant kids showing off their skills that involves a choreographed move that feels like SCOOBY-DOO. And when the action set-piece reaches its climax, with Erik pulling off an amazing feat, we get a soundtrack that comes straight out of TOP GUN. Not to mention the war-room looking like something out of STRANGELOVE!

The genius of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is, then, that it combines the intelligence of Jane Goldman, Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz's script with the pop-culture sensibility of director Matthew Vaughn. It's a movie so earnestly in love with the comic book material and its cinematic antecedents, that it can be intelligent but also witty - it can be self-referential (viz. the Hugh Jackman cameo) but never kitschy. I truly think this is a great summer blockbuster - and is far more entertaining and quietly clever than INCEPTION ever was. It has restored my faith in big summer action movies, after the disappointment of PIRATES 4 and THE HANGOVER 2. I can't wait for the next installment!

X-MEN FIRST CLASS is released today in the UK, Denmark, France and Serbia. It is released on June 2nd in Argentina, Australia, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Singapore and Thailand. It is released on June 3rd in the US, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, India, Norway, Paraguay, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. It is released on JUne 8th in Italy; on June 9th in Germany and Greece; on June 11th in Japan; on June 18th in Armenia and on June 23rd in Georgia.